Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Photography, Globalization, and Empire

History’s long march towards globalization has been aided in recent decades by accelerating change. Be it computers, weapons, aerospace, or digital cameras, technology has brought about profound change to the planet as a whole. The prevailing “boom and bust” economic model of global capitalism has developed concurrently, arising with the Industrial Revolution and the wage system, enabling the United States to opportunistically seize fully half the world’s wealth after World War II and become  the most powerful economic and military empire the world has ever seen. Along with its hundreds of military bases around the world, the U.S. has also achieved a cultural hegemony of sorts, with its movies, television programs, popular music, fast food, brands, and logos found in even some of the most remote regions of the planet.

In the realm of photography, globalization has, of course, brought about dramatic changes. Camera technology has developed rapidly. Digital point and shoot cameras and DSLRs are fairly affordable (especially for those in affluent nations such as ours). The vast majority of cellular phones include built in cameras with high resolutions. Smart phone technology connects users to the internet, allowing them to share their snapshots, meals, pets, and selfies with audiences around the globe. This democratization of photography has been nothing short of revolutionary, changing people’s lives and the way we interact with each other. This newfound ease in making and sharing images has also contributed heavily in activism, in movements which seek to cause social and governmental change through direct action. Activists have relied heavily on websites like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter in organizing and sharing information. Recent examples include The Arab Spring movements in the Middle East and North Africa and Black Lives Matter in the United States.

As the idea of  the “neutral vision” of social and scientific photography was challenged in the last decades of the 20th Century, the  increased availability and decreased price of picture-making technology led once marginalized segments of society, such as Native Americans, to begin making their own photography, reclaiming their own cultural identities in the process. Neutral vision continued to be an influence over photography, but was supplanted in some places, such as Chile, by photography which expressed opposition to the status quo. In 1973, the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende was brutally overthrown – with the help of the C.I.A. – and replaced with a reign of terror under the government of the dictator Augusto Pinochet. Chile’s U.S.-aided coup d’├ętat was paralleled by similar American-backed atrocities throughout Latin America during this period, and funded by the U.S. Taxpayer thanks to the Army’s terrorist training camp at Fort Benning, Georgia, the School of the Americas (renamed WHINSEC – Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, in 2001).

The Fall 1993 Time magazine cover, with its digital hybrid of a woman’s face, is indicative of many aspects of globalization. It blends several ethnicities in a realistic way using computer technology. In spite of the fact that there were people in the Americas with a greater claim to the land than the European settlers who arrived in the 17th Century to massacre them, steal their lands, and spread their foolish superstition and sexually transmitted diseases to them, the United States of America has always been something of a promised land for immigrants. The face of America is a truly global face, and that’s what you see on that cover. I must take issue, however, with the line of text at the bottom of the cover, which refers to the United States as "the World's First Multicultural Society," for it ignores the existence of India and its millennia of multi-culturalism.